Religion or belief: how do I handle employee requests?

Advice and Guidance

Who is this page for?

  • Employers

Which countries is it relevant to?

    • Great Britain

      Great Britain

Employees may come to you with requests to change their working conditions because of their religion or belief, or lack of a religion or belief.

See our frequently asked questions for some of the most common requests.

The Equality Act 2010 protects job applicants as well as existing employees. This means that job applicants, individuals who have accepted but not yet started a job, employees on a permanent or temporary contract, and casual/freelance workers can make religion or belief requests. You do not automatically have to agree to requests but you must give them proper consideration.

Remember:

  • Be consistent in your approach and avoid treating one worker’s request differently from another if the request and situation is similar
  • Do not treat a worker worse in any way because they have made a request (whether you agree to it or not)
  • Requests might be for a temporary change for a short time only or they may be a request to change a working condition permanently
  • Small employers have to consider requests in the same way as larger employers, though size may be relevant to the ability to agree to the request
  • If you are a public body you are also subject to the Public Sector Equality Duty.

Our decision-making tool gives you a step-by-step approach to work through when considering a religion or belief request.

You need to be sure that the request is related to religion or belief. See our guide to the law for useful definitions and an explanation of which religions or beliefs are protected.

If the request is not related to religion or belief and you refuse it, this would not be religion or belief discrimination. But check that refusing would not discriminate against your employee because of another protected characteristic. For example, because more women than men are primary child carers refusing a request for part time working by a female employee can be indirect sex discrimination.

Some working conditions would particularly disadvantage anyone sharing the employee’s religion or belief or lack of religion belief if they worked for you. For example, a ban on the display of religious symbols at work would disadvantage all those Christians who share the belief that displaying a crucifix is important.

Where a working condition causes this 'group disadvantage' refusing a request to change it will be unlawful indirect religion or belief discrimination unless you can objectively justify it. Read about objective justification in our guide to the law.

There may be rare cases where the employee’s interpretation of a religion or belief is so unique that it would not cause this group disadvantage. In those cases a refusal could not be indirect religion or belief discrimination. However, if the disadvantage is genuinely and inextricably linked to the employee’s religion or belief, the best practical advice is to assume that it would also apply to others sharing that religion or belief. The focus is then on whether a refusal would be a proportionate way of achieving a genuine organisational need.

Think about:

  • What is the aim of the rule or policy you are being requested to change - how necessary is it?
  • What is the wider effect on business or work if the request is met, including efficiency of the service, cost and disruption?
  • Are there health and safety implications?
  • What is the effect on customers or service users?
  • Can you find a compromise that would meet business and employee needs?

Health and safety requirements will sometimes affect how you manage religion or belief requests. The protection of the health and safety of the employee and of others is a genuine and important organisational need. However, health and safety reasons do not automatically mean you should refuse a request. Each request must be considered on its own merits.

When considering a request you need to think about the needs of the affected employee and the disadvantage to them (and other employees who share the same belief) if the request is refused. The courts have said that the fact that an employee could leave their job if they don’t like the rules doesn’t excuse the employer from having to seriously consider, and justify refusing, a request.

When considering a request you need to think about the effect of any change on other employees, including on those who have a different religion or belief, or no religion or belief.

You must not automatically turn down a request just because there may be a knock-on effect on other employees. Instead you will need to assess how much of an effect there is.

The greater the effect on other employees, and the higher number of employees affected, the more likely it is that a refusal will be lawful. That is particularly true where the impact on other employees interferes with their human rights, such as the right to private and family life. For example, if an employee’s request not to work at weekends for religion or belief reasons would leave other employees having to work significantly more weekends and impacting on their time with friends and family, the employer may be justified in refusing the request.

Whether you say yes or no will depend on the circumstances of each case. You need to balance the effect of agreeing to the request on your business and other staff, against the effect on the individual of not agreeing to the request.

Whatever your decision, set a review date. If circumstances change you may want to review your decision. Putting any decision you make in writing will help your employee understand the reasons for it.

It is good practice to develop company policies on issues that are likely to generate requests, such as uniforms or clothing requirements, use of a prayer room or multi-faith space, and time off work. It is also a good idea to draw up an equal opportunities policy. This can be made available to all employees by publishing it in a handbook or induction pack, or putting it on your company intranet.

Having clear policies means that employees with a religion or belief and those without will feel able to make a request and understand the basis for their employer’s decisions. It will also help you to show that you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent your employees from discriminating against colleagues. As an employer you are liable for your employees’ actions unless you can show you have taken all reasonable steps.

Just because you agree to a request from one employee does not automatically mean you have to agree to all subsequent requests. Each request must be properly considered on its own merits. There may be clear organisational reasons not to grant a similar subsequent request, but you must take a consistent approach in similar circumstances.

Last updated: 27 Mar 2017

Further Information

If you think you might have been treated unfairly and want further advice, you can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service

Freephone 0808 800 0082

Textphone 0808 800 0084

Or write to them at

FREEPOST
EASS HELPLINE
FPN6521

Alternatively, you can visit our advice and guidance page.